Sisterland by Curtis Sittenfeld

SisterlandFrom birth, twins Daisy and Vi Shramm have had what they call “senses,” psychic abilities. Vi embraces hers, but after a bad experience in middle school, Daisy tries as hard as she can to ignore her senses and be normal. In college, she goes by Kate (from her middle name, Kathleen), and when she marries she takes her husband’s last name; so although Vi Shramm and Kate Tucker still live in their hometown of St. Louis, Missouri, their twinship isn’t obvious.

Not only do they differ in name and in appearance, their lives have taken different courses as well: Kate attended college, married, and is a stay-at-home mom, whereas Vi, after a wandering course, is a practicing psychic in town. When she predicts a massive earthquake, Kate is torn: she believes her sister, but will she support her? Kate’s husband Jeremy is a professor at Washington University, and his close friend and colleague Courtney Wheeling is an expert in seismology there; she insists that there is no way to predict an earthquake.

Sisterland is narrated by Kate, and the reader has access to all of her thoughts, feelings, and insecurities. Though the majority of the story takes place during the lead-up to the predicted date of the earthquake, there are also episodes from the twins’ childhood, adolescence, and college years, as well as Kate and Jeremy’s courtship, and their friendship with the Wheelings (Hank is a stay-at-home dad). As usual, Sittenfeld manages to cover a significant span of time without sacrificing the story’s depth.

Throughout her life, and the book, Kate’s frequent conflicts with her sister are a manifestation of her internal conflict: she has the “senses,” but she doesn’t trust them or want them; she wants to embrace conformity, be normal, be good. But can she be true to herself while ignoring this aspect of her character? The main conflict, when it comes, has little to do with Kate’s psychic abilities (or her quashing of them); it is surprising but utterly believable.

Sittenfeld has a talent/skill for making her characters’ words and actions seem reasonable by revealing their deepest thoughts and feelings. I sympathized with Kate, though it occurred to me to wonder how I would feel if Sittenfeld had chosen to narrate the story from Vi’s point of view. Sisterland encompasses a number of issues: traditional beliefs vs. new age-y ones, the value of working vs. stay-at-home parenting (and how that affects partners’ relationships), race, fidelity, and compromise. For those who were impressed by Prep and/or American Wife, be assured that Sisterland is as good, if not better.

I received a galley from Random House at the Massachusetts Library Association conference in April. Sisterland will be published on June 25, 2013.

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